Let’s be honest, we like a drink in this country, but if you stopped to ask the person on the street to name an Irish beer you’ll probably hear the same big brands repeated over and over again. But 175 years ago things were very different with 17 small breweries in Northern Ireland and 154 in the Republic of Ireland.
Imagine the scene, it’s 1837, and Northern Ireland is home to 17 small breweries, but by the turn of the century all these small breweries had disappeared, having succumbed to industrialisation and the homogenisation of the brewing industry in Ireland.
Fast forward to 2012 and a handful of small independent Northern Irish craft breweries are taking the fight to the big brewers, punching above their weight with a Muhammad Ali stance, boxing the world and making a stand for a return to the craft beer industry in Northern Ireland.
As consumers we have the right to choice, so what a pity when you enter the majority of pubs in Ireland, you’ll know exactly what beers are on tap before you even look, the usual suspects of Harp, Guinness, Bass, Smithwick’s and Tennent’s. This is equivalent to every restaurant in every town across Ireland serving the same five identical dishes. We don’t accept this in a restaurant setting, so why do we settle for this when we go out for a drink?
I was lucky enough to catch up with Seamus Scullion, owner and brewer of Hilden Brewing Company in Lisburn, Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, who have been brewing craft beer since 1981 in the shadow of the now derelict Barbour linen mill. By rights they can claim the title of being Northern Ireland’s first artisan producer all those years ago. These days Seamus takes a back seat when it comes to brewing and has handed over Master brewing duties to son Owen who is successfully taking the business into the 21st Century. The most notable recent developments at Hilden have been a complete re-brand and bold new beer labels. Clearly this is a craft brewery that believes in its beer and feels confident about the future.
Hilden Brewing Company is a true role model for independent breweries, evident in 31 years of successfully brewing craft beers, and adding two restaurants into the mix, The Tap Room at Hilden and Molly’s Yard at College Green Belfast, both of which are managed by Owen’s sister Frances.
Seamus Scullion has the greyed distinguished look of an expert craftsman, with a willfully uncompromising twinkle in his eye and a clear vision for the beer – ‘Our concept of quality is not one the business school graduate would recognise. We’re not wedded to the concept of each batch of beer we produce to be identical. There is natural variation in the process of brewing and we live with these natural processes and as far as we can, let them have their way. Our ambition is to brew the best beer we can.’
Seamus’ passion for his product was very clear from the outset – ‘Our point of difference is that our beer has real flavour and character, most beer these days is sold on promises of lifestyle and what it will do for your social standing.’
From his days working in the south of England, pre-1980, Seamus was struck by the number of small local craft breweries dotted all over the English countryside and on his return, felt there was a gap in the Northern Irish market – ‘There was little choice in the market place here, we saw there was an opportunity to get something different into the market. We sell our product on the authenticity of the beer. That’s how we try to compete with the big brewers. That’s where we stand, and we definitely feel now that we are on a crusade, and we’re very much in the belief that we do not see other craft brewers as competition, we see them as allies.’
It’s unsurprising to hear Seamus use such rousing language when you consider the stranglehold that an organisation like Diageo has on the drinks industry. Most pubs in Ireland will be in the pocket of Diageo, with landlords turning to the drinks giant for financial backing for a new pub, assistance for refurbs or new kit etc. In return Diageo forces the landlord to stock only Diageo product. So to talk about Irish craft beer in terms of a crusade is by no means a flippant use of rhetoric.
When I spoke to Gerry White, Manager of the John Hewitt bar, one of Belfast’s few ‘free’ bars, I asked him how do we get more Irish craft beers in the pubs – ‘What’s needed is for Guinness/Diageo to open up a bit more and to allow the bars that they have to stock more guest beers, and I think it’ll actually increase their own sales, it will generate more customers because they’d be offering more choice.’
As Seamus talked I could see we were getting closer to his philosophy on brewing beer – ‘The big brewers have the concept that every pint is identical to every other pint, and that is their concept of quality, it doesn’t mean it tastes good, it just means every beer tastes identical. When we brew a Hilden Ale it doesn’t mean the one we brewed last year is identical to the one this year, or even last week, there are slight variations that do not concern us, as long as the beer is good to drink, that’s our concern. It’s the whole point of craft production of anything, whether it’s bread, beer, wine or cheese, it’s about living with nature rather than subjecting it. Accepting we’re living with natural processes and letting them have their way. Mass market highly promoted beers have all the evidence that they come from a factory, they have no reference back to the harvest.’
The penny dropped when Seamus talked about this ‘reference back to the harvest.’ This reference is the antithesis to the mass market processed food and drink industry and sits at the heart of any artisan food or drink product.
Seamus was on a roll now and his passion, commitment and understanding were shining through – ‘Our style of beer owes as much to the hop grower and the maltster, as it does to the brewer, so the essence of the harvest is still there. It’s like any product you like to eat and drink, you like to think it tastes of the natural ingredients that have gone into it. That’s the contrast with the mass market beers, our beer has the real taste of the natural ingredients and that real taste is complex.’
‘To achieve that complexity is partly down to how we brew, part of that is also the processing. When our beer is ready to go, the mass market breweries have only begun the process, they get beer to that stage and they adjust it for strength, colour, shelf life, head retention. They adjust for all these qualities that they have ascribed to their beers and they do it artificially. The concept that everything must be identical cannot be achieved by natural methods and materials, so you use artificial methods and materials.’
‘They take the yeast out it using a centrifuge, then they want it to be sterile so they pasteurise it. Because it’s sterile, they have to get a sparkle into it so they have to inject it artificially with CO2. But these processes don’t make for bland beer, that’s the choice that the brewers have made to make bland beer, there’s nothing suspect about these processes, but they diminish the essence of beer. Beer is a product of the harvest and that’s what we like to see coming through in our beer.’
Hilden’s attitude is very much one of taking their beer to the people and once a year they host their own beer festival, over the August bank holiday weekend. Seamus sees the beer festival as a way to show consumers that we don’t just have to drink what global marketing conglomerates like Diageo want us to drink – ‘We don’t restrict the beer festival to just our beers, we bring in lots of beers from all over Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. There might be 35 or more beers on the bar. We’re promoting the concept that there is choice out there. The festival has been a great success with numbers growing each year. People come and enjoy themselves, and leave without any anti-social behaviour. It’s a different culture that we are selling to, generally the person we aim for is more discriminating with their beer and is a bit more discriminating in life.’
It’s always a pleasure to listen to a craftsman talk about his work and sitting with Seamus that day, I felt real hope for the future of Northern Ireland’s food culture. He spoke lucidly and with a casual confident tone, but he’s definitely a character, like all great artisan creators are, and of course it is this character and hint of eccentricity which comes through in the character of Hilden beer. We need more people like Seamus and Owen Scullion to take the burgeoning Northern Irish food scene forward and bring it to the people.
With this years Hilden Beer Festival only days away, it is safe to say the craft beer movement in Northern Ireland is in good hands. If you get the chance I would highly recommend paying a visit to Hilden over the bank holiday weekend.
See it as an opportunity to exercise your right to choose and support a festival that embodies an independent spirit that is so rare in today’s homogenised society. This is about supporting local homegrown businesses and celebrating what is on our door step.
It’s also about not buying into the smoke and mirrors of marketing and advertising dreamt up by a faceless global corporation such as Diageo, who’s only concern is profit.
It’s really up to you the reader. Do you want to drink insipid, watery bland fizz or would you like to drink a beer that has been handcrafted to produce a complex depth of flavour? I seem to remember a Harp campaign which sold Harp on the promise that it would refrigerate your taste buds! Who wants to have their taste buds refrigerated? Perhaps the only pleasant way to drink Harp is if your taste buds are frozen and you can’t taste how utterly decrepit, mediocre and woeful this poor excuse for a beer is!
But hey that’s just me going off on a rant! Get to Hilden over the bank holiday weekend for some fun and good music. You never know, you might meet the person of your dreams! But most importantly just go and drink some damn fine tasty beer! Amen to that!
Hilden Brewing Company Beer and Music Festival 2012
24th – 26th August
Friday: 6pm – 12pm, £6
Saturday: 2pm – 12pm, £12
Sunday: 2pm – 8pm, £6
T: 028 9266 0800